Physician's artwork is an outgrowth of patient care
■ Some 28,000 pills woven into fabric give museum visitors a different take on medicine's connection to life.
By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Jan. 19, 2004
Dr. Elizabeth Lee, a general practitioner in Bristol, England, says medicine is her first love, but a close second is the art she creates with lifelong friend and textile artist Susie Freeman.
"Medicine defines me. Art is a sideline," says Dr. Lee, who has been practicing medicine for 17 years and creating art for more than five. "Being a doctor is a great thing."
Art may be a sideline for Dr. Lee, but it has made her a celebrity. She and her collaborators Freeman and photographer and video artist David Critchley now have an exhibit at the British Museum.
Their work, "Cradle to Grave," combines prescription drugs, family photos and personal artifacts to illustrate the medical care given during an average person's lifespan. To put a personal face on the concept, the fictional lives of an 82-year-old woman and a 76-year-old man are depicted.
The museum, home to Easter Island figures, Roman statues and the like, received 4.6 million visitors in 2002-03. "Cradle to Grave," exhibited in a waist-high display case more than 40 feet long, dominates the middle of one of the museum's galleries.
"My favorite part is at the very beginning," Dr. Lee said. "We have a lineup of all the immunizations a child has by the age of 4. There are nine syringes and needles. It's quite devastating thinking of this tiny person getting all these injections, how they go through this pain to be protected. I love the look of them."
Another favorite is the section that deals with the man's death. A length of fabric with 14,000 prescription pills he's taken during his life suddenly becomes blank when he dies of a stroke.
"The empty fabric at the end, there's something sad about it," Dr. Lee said. "There's a picture of a family shouldering a coffin into church. The black fabric. The art is visually so engaging that I'm overwhelmed."
She hopes the exhibit makes people more aware of the medications they take and helps them see that friends and family are just as important to good health as drugs are.
Dr. Lee said a common misperception is that the exhibition is a criticism of the amount of medication people take.
"[Museum visitors] think that's the message we're trying to give," she said. "But I think pills are fantastic. People are ill, they have pain, they have sicknesses and pills are a great benefit to mankind."
Dr. Lee's art career began with a conversation on the beach with Freeman as Dr. Lee contemplated using IUDs in art work. Soon after, Freeman was approached to use pills in her textiles, and the two realized they could create unusual works together.
Since their collaboration began, Dr. Lee has become a collector of unused pills from patients and helps to brainstorm on designs. Freeman fabricates the pieces, and Crutchfield joined them to create the photographic elements of "Cradle to Grave."
Procuring the quantity of pills needed for "Cradle to Grave" was a challenge. Dr. Lee wrote prescriptions for herself, which is legal in Britain, and worked solely through her local pharmacist, whom she kept informed about the project to avoid suspicion. The drugs ended up costing $9,000 to $11,000, she said.
Next, she and Freeman hope to create a piece of art for a charity to display to raise money for prescription drugs for children in Africa with AIDS. Their idea is to show two alternative lives: one a child would have with medication to treat AIDS and one without.